Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

It’s offal, but not awful

Gus Wikstrom was Canada’s top pig-spleen reader for many years. When he died in 2007 his nephew, Jeff Woodward took over the role of forecasting weather by rooting through porcine innards. After all — somebody has to do it, right?

BY CHRIS SIMPSON

IMG_7250There’s little point in recapping the Gus Wikstrom story to an audience that probably knows it by heart. Glen (Gus) Earnest Wikstrom was Canada’s foremost pig-spleen weatherman, his name a household word in his home province of Saskatchewan, and not unknown even in the remote wilds of Toronto. His family, friends and fans mourned his passing in 2007, but took solace in the fact that his pig-spleen mantle had been handed on to his nephew, Jeff Woodward, who wears it with ever-increasing authority.

But while the legend of Gus, and now Jeff, is well-known, what readers may be less familiar with is what an actual pig spleen reading is like.

Pig spleen reading is a form of haruspication, or divination by reading animal entrails. Haruspication is an ancient and honourable (if somewhat bloody) tradition reaching back to Babylonian times, and possibly even to the Hittites. Kings relied upon it, generals planned battles around it, and if Julius Caesar had listened to his haruspicating advisers who warned him to stay home that fateful day on the Ides of March, he may well have died of old age, instead of in a bloody heap on the Senate steps.

But while pig spleen reading shares history with haruspication, its ambitions are altogether more humble. Had Julius Caesar consulted a pig spleen reader, the best he could have hoped to find out was whether it was going to rain in the afternoon.

Gus Wikstrom, like so many before him, learned to read pig spleens with his family and neighbours as they gathered on the farm each November to slaughter pigs. In these darkened environs (for such may we imagine them, regardless of reality), the spleens were studied and the weather revealed for the next six months.

It is this image Barbara and I have in mind as we drive to Lynette and Del Collier’s home for The Boxing Day Pig Spleen Reading at their farm.

IMG_7242What we find, however, is a tastefully decorated home filled with family, friends, and visitors. From the buffet filled with Scandinavian pastries and treats to the artful Christmas tree and room decorations, the scene speaks more of Dickensian comfort and inclusion than slaughtered pigs and entrails.

In a side room Jeff, his brother Rob and several other men sit in comfortable chairs around three pig spleens laid out on a card table. It was here that the actual scrying was taking place.

“Is the pig spleen accurate to within 200 miles or 200 kilometers of where the pig was slaughtered?” asks Rob.

“It’s 200 miles,” says Jeff. “Or – or it’s 200 kilometers. I can’t remember.”

“I wonder why you never hear of pig spleen jerky,” wonders someone else.

“Do you know of any culture that eats pig spleen as part of their regular food?” asks another.

The lightly irreverent tone of their discussion is characteristic of spleen-reading.

“Gus had an accuracy rate of 95%,” Jeff tells me. “Self proclaimed,” he adds.

In the main rooms, as the rest of the guests wait for Jeff’s official reading, they talk, eat, and listen to recordings of radio shows featuring Gus.

Finally the moment arrives, the card table with the pig spleens is brought out and Jeff begins his reading.

There are three pig spleens, two from the Earview Colony and one from Woldheim, each being accurate only within 200 miles (or kilometers) from their point of origin. Like Gus before him, Jeff makes his predictions with confidence and self-ridicule. Although the ritual has always been taken with more than one grain of salt, Jeff confesses that since he’s started his readings in 2007 the “accuracy has been good” and that at times he’s even astounded himself.

“This oddity here,” he says, pointing to a piece of fat that has grown through the skin and emerged from the other side “indicates something special. But I haven’t decided what it is, yet.”

Although we’ve had some bitterly cold days so far, Jeff says this isn’t likely to last, and while there will be plenty of precipitation in January through to mid-February, it’s likely to take the form of freezing rain much of the time.

In truth, this is only the preliminary reading. After he’s finished here, Jeff will sit down and make a more detailed prognosis. As it stands, however, it looks like it’s going to be a good year for crops as it will stay dry through the seeding, followed by plenty of rain afterwards.

Of course, no Wickstrom-family pig spleen reading is complete without obligatory claims regarding the health benefits of the organ.

“Gus always claimed that pig spleens worn on the head would grow hair,” Jeff informs his audience. “I’m happy being bald, though.”

Another property of pig spleen is its effect, when eaten, upon the libido. Following his reading, Jeff fries up a spleen and offers it around. “It’s recommended that couples should eat the same amount, otherwise one will overpower the other,” he warns us as he passes around samples.

What does pig spleen taste like? Actually, not bad. It has a texture not unlike liver and tastes slightly of bacon. This, however, could be due to the ancient family recipe Jeff uses.

“It’s fried in bacon-flavoured olive oil,” he tells me.

“Is that part of the old family tradition?” I ask.

“Oh yes, it goes way back,” he replies, waving his hand to indicate the generations of Wickstroms who used the bacon-flavoured olive oil available from the Olive Shop in Moose Jaw.

At last it’s time for us to leave, and we wend our way through the crowd that has adopted us into their fold, made us welcome, and fed us porcine offal. It’s been a wonderful night, and some present have travelled a long way to be present. Matt Granlund, who originally hails from Australia, has travelled the farthest, having come from Vancouver where he DJs an independent music station.

As we say our goodbyes we determine that this won’t be our last visit to the Colliers, nor our last experience with pig spleen reading. Right now, however, it’s time to go home. After all, it wouldn’t do to have the effects of the cooked pig spleen take hold while out in public, would it?

Originally published in The Gull Lake Advance, Jan. 8, 2013

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